Christopher Hitchens, verbal bully, died this past week. He was great with words and I dearly loved reading his essays considering his illness and his entry into the “land of malady.” He was smart and privileged and tunnel-visioned and forceful in his beliefs, some of which were awe-inspiring and others of which I found abhorrent.
Here’s the thing you have to understand about me and Anthony: I’m the screw-up in our friendship. Although we both in our own ways really like to keep a certain amount of order and organization in things, I was always a bit lazier about it all than Anthony. And being a somewhat reactive person, I tended to accentuate this facet of myself when we hung out.
Anthony was painstaking in his video game playing, and originally quite generously receptive to sharing screen time. “Can I have a go?” “Sure,” and he’d wander off to get a soda, or a seltzer water, or whatever. By the time he came back, I had probably killed his character or frozen the program. After a while, he’d still let me play, but never his game. I could go and screw up my own game.
In eighth grade science class, during a particularly boring session, I took a ball point pen and started drawing on his hand. He let me – I think to see how long I’d do it. I kept drawing, I think to see how long he’d let me do it. I didn’t draw a picture, just a dot. A darker and darker dot, more and more impregnated with ink. One of us eventually got bored with the game, and that was that, until the next day, when not all of the ink had washed off and he had a noticeable but not, I think, horrible rash on his hand all around the remains of the dot. I thought this was hysterical. Anthony did not. Anthony thought it was so not hysterical that, five years later when he and Steph began dating, he refused to let her draw on his hand, even the cutesy lovey things that she planned. No one was ever going to draw on him again. That was my fault.
When we were playing a late-night round of Palladium in college, I’m the guy that suggested he throw his über-magic demon-killing sword at the flying demon that was pounding us. The flying demon was beyond the edge of a cliff, and he missed (who’s surprised?), and the sword disappeared, and we got our asses handed to us. He blamed this on me, even though I’m not the one who threw the sword. I don’t see how anyone could think that was my fault. No way.
In high school, during one of our spontaneous “let’s go see a movie” binges, we had 25 minutes to make what was normally a 30 minute drive. We joked in Star-Trek-The-Next-Generation-ese the whole way up, every 10 miles per hour being a “warp factor.” I mostly drove my mother’s car at warp factor 7 (she’s never heard this story). Sitting shotgun, Anthony naturally had the role of the captain, and manning the helm, I was naturally the android, all the way to when I swung into the parking lot just shy of warp factor 3 into the wrong traffic lane. When a set of headlights appeared unexpectedly on a collision course, Anthony said with grace and poise that Patrick Stewart could not have beat, “Uh, lane change, Mr. Data.”
You could say that while I’m the screw-up, I also enabled some of his less-thoughtful tendencies. I was a bit of a double-whammie, in other words.
I don’t get to choose all of the things I remember. Some of them come unbidden. There’s a lot of things I don’t know. I love hearing Steph talk about how gentle he was, and tender, because I didn’t know him that way. We worked technical theater together – lights and scenery. When I began directing he designed my posters. We played games together. We watched bad movies together. We visited colleges together. We told bad jokes, worked on his house, ran errands together. Anthony was very private, and he rarely confided in me. He was not inherently someone who confided. Fundamentally we were two guys, bound by a lot of the conventions of being guys.
No ghosts here. Ghosts come with places and things. I’ll probably never visit an Arby’s again without thinking of Anthony – for all his meticulousness in clothing, he really liked his food fast. I’ll probably associate maroon minivans with him for some time to come. And barbarians, Nike shoes, and the name “Bob,” for which he had a particular fondness. His barbarians were always Bob, and they wore Nike shoes. The walker he used in his last years, that was Bob, too. Maybe even the minivan.
We got our first dog when I was 7, a tawny blond collie lab mix that we named Simba – “lion,” if you haven’t seen The Lion King. When we moved to Minnesota, he found a preferred space on the landing between staircases, back to the lowest step, and for the eight years that he and I shared that house, I jumped over that step going up or down, knowing that there was likely a fuzzy body dozing against it. Simba died of age and worms at the ripe old age of 11 or 12, pretty good for a medium-sized dog, when I was at college. For as long as my mother stayed in that house years after, I still jumped that step. The ghost of my dog still sat in my brain, “This is where I sleep!”
On Friday, we shuffled furniture at the house. Stephanie’s bed went back downstairs to her room, but all we had to move was the mattress. The frame and split box spring were already in place, a testament to Anthony’s long ago attempt to move a full king-sized box spring up the stair, the event of which had necessitated him buying a reciprocating saw (good!) and cutting out a couple of stair treads (less good). We moved dressers like hopscotch. This one downstairs from the hall. This one from the hall to one room. This one from one room to another. There was nothing about that downstairs bedroom that spoke to my last two visits, when Anthony lay in a hospital bed, sleeping, sitting with a visitor, or watching television. And yet, twice in a row, I caught myself poking my head around the corner to check and see how he was doing.
On the Wednesday before we left, someone posted a link to the gamesite for Diablo III. The gameplay video spends a lot of time on the Barbarian, Anthony’s preferred character class in all games video and role-playing. I thought, without remorse but joy, how much he’d love playing this, the ghost of my friend sitting in my brain, “That’s what I’m talking about.”